My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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mourning and public-ness

When I ranted about how the media’s incessant desire to get the story was not allowing the people of Newtown to mourn, I did not expect that I’d be mourning the death of a friend a month later. As I’ve tried to come to terms with Aaron’s death, I’ve found myself slipping between personal grief and meta reflection, my primary coping mechanism for dealing. I’ve decided to craft this deeply personal, reflective blog post because I think that it makes sense to think about and discuss what mourning and vulnerability mean in a culture of public-ness.

Last week, I read the story of a Newtown woman who was photographed grieving at a vigil. She voiced her struggle in becoming an icon of the tragedy, understanding the importance of the story but also wanting to be respected as an individual going through her own struggles. This story resonated with me.

Aaron Swartz was a friend of mine. When I woke up three Saturdays ago to learn about his death, I went into complete shock. I spent the day talking with mutual friends, reading heartfelt stories on the internet, and crying. I woke up the next day and while lying in bed, penned my own memorial for my blog. I always struggle with what my blog is, wanting it to be a way of communicating with people who know me while also recognizing that it’s read by many strangers. Still, it’s the best vessel to share with a community of geeks that I love. So I posted my reflections there.

I should’ve known that my blog post would attract the attention of the press. But I wasn’t really processing reality and I hadn’t yet begun to realize that the story would become a mainstream one. On one hand, I was glad. People should know who Aaron was and why what he did was important. On the other hand, I watched as the story took on a life of its own, not just a rallying cry for geeks, but a portrait that I could barely recognize.

I started getting questions from journalists and I panicked. I wrote as politely as I could that I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t be their source. But I also struggled with the very fact of their asking. Yes, I blogged about him, but what right do I have to speak for Aaron? To tell Aaron’s story? I was Aaron’s friend, but like many friends in my world, we ebbed and flowed in terms of closeness over the last 9 years. I was not his lover, I was not his professional collaborator. I had only met his father once and only met his current partner briefly. I knew only a small subset of his social circle. I knew – and adored – a facet of Aaron. But who was I to tell his story? I found myself fretting over how my blog post had created a signal that I didn’t want to to convey. I wanted to express my grief and my fear over how parts of my community were reacting, not claim proximity or define Aaron.

As the funeral rolled around, I scratched my head as to whether or not to go. I hate funerals, but I also knew that many people I cared deeply about were struggling even more than me. And none of us live in the same city. And part of me wanted to support them and show respect. But then I heard people who didn’t know Aaron talking about going because it was “the right thing to do” which was basically code for the notion that everyone who was everyone was going to be there. It also became clear that it was going to be a media event with the possibility of protestors and counter-protesters. And I balked. I couldn’t stomach the idea of simultaneously trying to mourn and trying to deal with a collective performance of mourning. So I stayed put, in a daze.

And then the memorials started up and I was asked to speak. And I realized that I was so not there yet. I was still at the stage of cry and hug. And I was struck by how some of those who he spent his last days with were able to channel their own emotional struggle into a far more productive output than I could possibly muster. I was in awe of their strength, of their commitment. Because I relished the activist in Aaron and I was completely intellectually with them in their efforts to use this moment to make a difference, to speak out against the structural inequities and abuses of power that Aaron was fighting for. But I wasn’t able to be there; I was still in a dark place that wasn’t productive. So I pushed my own escape valve, a privileged valve I’ve learned to use whenever things got dark. I spent my frequent traveler points and went to Miami to hug the sun and the beach and get a grip on my mental state.

I’ve spent a lot of years struggling with my own demons and one of the best parts of growing old for me is that I’ve developed coping mechanisms to identify and deal with my emotional state before I put myself or anyone else at risk. I’m good at getting control over me before running full-speed with my activist goals. This is something that I’m very proud of. But I also look back with a lot of uncertainty because I don’t know how I would’ve gotten here without the internet as it was when I was coming of age.

As I’ve said many times, the internet has been my saving grace. I usually publicly point to the ways in which I have learned about new opportunities and been challenged to think about a world that was bigger than the one that I was inhabiting on a daily basis. But embedded in those positive-minded narratives is the fact that the internet allowed me to be vulnerable and safe in a productive way. I spent countless hours anonymously talking to strangers about my demons without being tracked or identified or outed. I used LiveJournal to be deeply vulnerable among friends in an environment where we all understood that it was a site where you shared your struggles and everyone respected that. I lashed out in ways that helped create friendships as a byproduct of getting help. And I started blogging in a context where putting yourself out there enabled a small community of caring folks to listen and be supportive in all sorts of unique ways.

Today, I don’t have that luxury. My internet is painfully public. My interactions online are heavily constrained by pressures I get from others. When I post something controversial or incomplete, I am consistently publicly attacked and I’m regularly told that this is what I get for choosing to speak in public. I am told that as a public figure, I deserve whatever I get. So when I choose to make myself vulnerable in public, I have to brace myself for attacks. Even my attempt to mourn Aaron generated messages by strangers attacking me for clearly having not been a real friend or else he wouldn’t have died. I’ve learned to roll with these attacks, but they still sting. And I don’t know that my younger self could’ve handled them well. But what I know is that I no longer have an internet where I feel safe to deal with my demons. There are still places where people can carve out that space, but somehow, it never feels safe enough to me anymore.

I realize that this nostalgia for the past is interwoven with a whole set of different issues that make this a self-absorbed lament. But Aaron’s death threw it in my face. Because, on the day that Aaron died, the geeks that I grew up being vulnerable with all let down their guards and wailed through the media that they knew best. And then his death went from creating a weekend of collective sadness and storytelling to an event that took on a life of its own. And I’m left with a discomforting question: where are geeks allowed to be vulnerable today?

With each new geek death by suicide, folks ask what we should do about the depression in our community. I can’t help but think that we’re paying the costs of the public-ness that we’ve helped create. We’ve made geek culture something to watch, an economic engine, a dependency. And in doing so, we haven’t enabled safe spaces to grow. We’ve created communities connected around ideas and actions, relishing individualistic productivity for collective good. But we haven’t created openings for people to be weak and voice their struggles and demons. In short, we don’t know how to support vulnerabilities and rather than debugging the problem, we just hope that if we don’t pay too much attention to them, they’ll go away.

But the pressures of public-ness are forcing us to pay an ugly price. In NYC alone, we’ve lost two geeks in two years because their worlds spun out of control in ways that didn’t leave them with enough strength to grapple with their demons while also trying to make the world a better place. Throughout this country, there are geeks and hackers facing serious pressures by structural power as a byproduct of the public-ness we’ve created. And many of them are also facing serious demons. I’m definitely among those who want to hold political entities accountable for capitalizing on vulnerabilities in their pursuit of the status quo, but I am also hoping that the geek community can figure out a way to make sure that those who are struggling have enough support to fight both their demons and their oppressors. Before we lose another one. The problem is that I genuinely don’t know how.

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25 comments to mourning and public-ness

  • This is an important issue, danah. Thanks for putting your finger on it. I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time.

  • Beautiful, Dana. You made me think of Auden:

    “Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
    And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
    To find his happiness in another kind of wood
    And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
    The words of a dead man
    Are modified in the guts of the living.”

  • Barry Wellman

    As Tim says, beautifully thought and written. The rest of my post is not a criticism of anyone but a personal reflection. But I’ve noticed that Aaron got a lot more visible support after he died than before. Perhaps if we had banded together, we might have been able to prevent or mitigate the bullying prosecution. Something to think about for the future.

  • gregorylent

    the consciousness embedded in institutions is behind (more constricted) than the consciousness of the future-aware visionaries of our times … the institutions cannot adapt, the visionaries will not be supported because they are seen as threats ..

    at this point, “route around” seems the essence of wisdom

  • Jeremy Vanderlan

    This has struck a chord with me Dana. Thank you for sharing it.

  • We need to join small private spaces where it’s understood that you don’t copy/forward other people’s words.

  • This is exactly why I chose not to write much about Aaron. While I met him a couple of times, notably when he was only 14, I didn’t really know him and therefor didn’t want to become a source. When I worked at Microsoft I learned that it brings bad karma to become the public face of something you don’t know.

    I’m struggling with these issues too.

    The more I live life and get real with other people I learn that nearly everyone has their private hells. For most of us we can bottle that up and keep smiling. For some, though, the bottle explodes and tragedy hits all.

    There are more frictions ahead as our world turns even more public (living in public, even partly, has a LOT of advantages, but it does come with a cost). Increasingly I am seeking out experiences that don’t involve huge numbers of people.

    One of my favorite memories of the many SXSW’s I’ve been to was sitting on the floor with you danah and just talking about life and this stuff. I so crave those conversations, and that’s why I read your blog. It is like we’re sitting on the floor again just having a nice conversation. Then I remember there’s lots of other people here too. So, my thoughts go to “are we having a conversation, or are we putting on a show?”

    A lot of times it’s easy to fall into the show mode. When we do we lose something of ourselves. But then the show does help other people, even me.

    Anyway, thanks for being vulnerable and taking the shots. I get them too. They sting a little less than they used to, because I’ve learned that most of those comments aren’t really about the person they are aimed at anyway.

    Love you and what you do!

  • I think it is always good to have a public and a private face on the internet, an avatar to shield you from attacks on your whole self. Of course that doesn’t work when you want to do work in the physical space, but for joining a demon-fighting forum or a mailing list it is alright.

  • Murray Macdonald

    Thanks for sharing. I too found your writing moving and enlightening. After reading this I found myself pondering if this is really a geek issue. We could say all the same things about actors, athletes, musicians, entrepreneurs and countless others. So many talented people have been lost to depression that I think it’s time we view this as general issue, not a vertical one. For example my son has Aspergers significantly raising his chances of becoming depressed but the underlying issue is not isolated to the AS community. I hope we as a society start to recognize the significance, breadth and cost of depression and start doing more to prevent and treat it. The issue is admittedly complex but a friendly smile and friendly conversation go a very long way. Social engagement can change or even save someone’s life. Make it a point to talk with the next person you feel might be isolated, depressed, challenged or lonely. It only takes and moment and can make a huge difference. Kindness costs us nothing. Thanks again for touching on this very important issue.

  • Beautifully written. (I came to read via Robert Scoble’s facebook link.) Thank you danah.

  • Mary Branscombe

    I know exactly what you mean about Livejournal; friends locked posts on my blog there and on private conferences on cix (shorthand; a UK version of the Well) are where my friends helped me process the most painful times of my life. In a physical public space most of us would give a person talking confidentially to friends the privacy to do that. On the internet I think we will always need to explicitly create those private spaces and maintain those communities (despite how much easier the public communities are to interact with). Lots of admiration for you sharing your vulnerability and tour processing. How can we help people find communities of interest that are also private spaces? This is something that’s falling by the wayside with such public networking, I think.

  • anonymous

    danah, i’m someone who doesn’t know you, but has followed your work and your increasing public prominence since you were in grad school. i admire your work, and your willingness to share parts of yourself in public, under your real name.

    as someone who’s been online in all sorts of communities since the early 90s, what i haven’t quite figured out is where this recent culture of enforced real names only has come from. is this some larger product of the internet somehow “maturing” or is it directly a cultural enforcement that grows out of facebook expectations? you’ll have studied this more directly than i have, especially as it affects people who are younger than either of us.

    and then, more significant here, why do we accept it as given? why don’t you, or i for that matter, go out and create those new identities not-linked-to-real-life for ourselves in whatever spaces seem to work best for us now?–the identities that could allows us to feel safely part of online communities without endangering our overall privacy? partly, i think, it’s that we’re more mature than we were, and more comfortable in our own skins. maybe it doesn’t occur to us to do this until we needed it yesterday and then the task is too large. maybe it’s that it takes time, and work, and emotional risk, to continuously interact with unknown others under different sets of communal roles within different sorts of interfaces, and other work seems pressing now.

    but i also wonder if there isn’t something to be said for trying to reclaim that internet that was a safe space for so many of us for our intellectual, spiritual or emotional growth? in the past it has worked in the well, in irc, in usenet, in listserv, in moos and muds, livejournal, on and on, and maybe there’s a way it could also work now.

  • Thank you so much for sharing your feelings and experience. I wrote a short piece about the impact of your friend’s death, not knowing anything about him. My condolences for your loss.

  • zephoria

    First, thank y’all for the comments. I think that part of what I’m struggling with is that the solution is not just to find better ways of being pseudonymous or to find ways of locking down and privatizing conversations in a secure way. Yes, these work to a certain degree. But this wouldn’t have worked for me growing up because I wasn’t cool enough to be in those communities. I didn’t know who I wanted to see, who would give me support. The value for me was that, in a time when the internet was geeky, I could assume certain values writ large. So jumping into IRC or Usenet meant accepting certain norms without having to define them or bound them. We’ll never go back to those days. And we don’t solve it by trying to create weird artificial constructions. But I genuinely don’t know what it means to construct safe space for geeks in this configuration of the internet. I’m at a loss. This is why I think it needs innovation. And by innovation I mean more than a repurposing of existing technical blocks.

  • zephoria

    Robert – I totally remember those conversations! It’s been a long time. Heck, it’s been a long time since SXSW was dominated by geeks.

    When I (we) started blogging, people who commented on blogs were bloggers. It felt like a conversation because it was possible to keep tabs on what our broader network of friends and colleagues were talking about. And even if we had nothing to say to that particular point, there was a strange sense of conversation in the air. It was a different kind of conversation because of the affordances. Asynchronous, not always directly targeted or directly responded to. But as blogs got larger audiences (circa ?2004?) and social media spiked, blogging started feeling more siloed. I was blogging to my audience; you were blogging to yours. The audience wasn’t necessarily other bloggers. And it became a performance, not a community. Hell, I barely keep tabs on what some of my favorite people write about because all of the tools for managing the dynamic broke when it became big. And my blogging practice changed a lot as a result. For better and for worse. So I’m not sure that it is a conversation anymore, as much as a performance that serves as an opening for a conversation in some instances.

  • Barb Woods

    “Even my attempt to mourn Aaron generated messages by strangers attacking me for clearly having not been a real friend or else he wouldn’t have died. ”
    I wanted to reply to this: These are individuals who have never dealt with suicide. Please do not listen to them or think you could have done something different. Live in this moment and cherish & nurture yourself, family, friends, community. Trust that you will make it through this crisis.

  • Randolph

    My sympathies.

    I miss the old co-operative internet. It wasn’t meant to be all public, it never was. There was space to move, not the white-hot attention of a thousand amateur paparazzi, and black-cold attention of a whole world of police and prosecutors. You write about privacy and freedom. And now it has been brought home to you–to many people I know, and many public figures I respect–in this sad and painful way.

    This was not what we meant to build. What did we mean to build?

  • direwolff

    Thanks for writing this danah.

  • Tom Cotton

    This is one time where I don’t agree. I think you do help your fellow geek and online communities instinctively and intuitively. apophenia is a survival guide for the duality of online and offline. You have taught me to be think of how I behave online impacts on others. You have also taught me to think twice at not just how but why others live and operate online. It’s this understanding I try to share with my fellow geeks and community. I am sure many other apophenia readers do to. Your blog continually draws deep connections because of your global thinking and clear care for humanity. Just as falling out of love helps deeper understanding of what means to love and be loved, I feel your eloquent reflections on Aaron’s passing deepens the understanding of what it is to be human and the love for what’s best of humanity. For that, us geeks are stronger people and the world a better place. For your honesty, openness and insight I cannot say thank you enough.

  • zephoria

    Thank you Tom. I really appreciate your note and support.

  • Noni Cavaliere

    I “knew” Aaron just a bit from his neighborhood, we would see each other at a few tech conferences or tech related “meetups” a few times in the past 3 years. We would bump into each other at the neighborhood coffee house or the grocery store. We only had maybe 10 conversations within the last few years but they were always very meaningful and he was so giving of his knowledge.

    Even though I just knew him from the tech/startup scene – realizing these small and mostly brief interactions are no longer going to happen is a strange and unsettling feeling. I can’t imagine how hard his passing is on his actual friends and the media attention around it must be.

    Thank you for this writing. It was touching and thoughtful. I commend you for sharing.

  • Erin McJ

    Holy crap; I saw your previous blog post when it was new and lived in blissful ignorance of the comments until now. I hope the people who said all those awful things to you are strangers and not people you have to smile at on the sidewalk or by the water cooler. Have people no sense, no compassion?

    I didn’t know Aaron and I don’t know you, but I’m a midlife geek and this post resonated with me. I still use LiveJournal for writing about all the things I’m not sure of, despite its flaws, despite my dwindling readership there. Nowhere else feels the same kind of safe; everywhere else, Facebook especially, I feel like I’m selling something.

    I’m really sorry for your loss.

  • Anita Pascoe

    Hi,

    I have recently started reading your work (I am studying the intersection of technology, grief and mourning, and culture), and found this particular post to be most evocative. Thank you.

    Anita

  • Thank you for sharing what felt like truly personal feelings from your heart. Those questions you ask yourself on how could I be the on to proxy for Aaron, what happened that I get all the attention from it. I feel your feelings of not being the one to tell another’s story that you didn’t feel you knew enough of. Again your words were magnificent and felt through and through.

  • Gomb

    I usually don’t make that many comments but I agree that the divide between our public selves and private selves has to be more balanced since this planet needs more whole people who can deal with todays problems as they continue getting worse. This post also reminds me of a film called We Live In Public which investigates harmful effects of having a continuos pulbic prescence. I also think much of the trauma from making online and offline personas stems from the fact that many yuounger people don’t always get enough support to truly find themselves as they get older.

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